de Seversky on Strategic Organization

June 1, 1958
“World War I combat pilot for his native pre-Bolshevik Russia, later a noted aircraft designer who founded what was to become Republic Aviation, and the author of the classic volume Victory through Air Power, Alexander P. de Seversky as long been respected throughout the world of aviation for his candid and prophetic views. What follows are some of his thoughts of defense organization in an age fraught with peril.

It is heartening that, at last, a public debate on our national defense is under way. I hope that this debate will not be confined to Washington but will be joined in every hamlet in the United States. Tactics and weapons are the province of the expert; but broad national policy is the province of the people. It is primarily the product of logic and wisdom.

Strategy cannot be kept secret. This is evident from the size and allocation of appropriations and from the country’s industrial effort. A free society cannot win a war by deception or surprise. Our strength must be inherent and obvious to all. But, in order to acquire this necessary strength, reshuffling of our present defense establishment is not enough. The whole military philosophy, the whole approach to our national defense effort must be changed if we are to survive.

What then must our course be? What sort of a defense establishment must we have in order to create a strategy attuned to the technology of our times? Eight years ago in my book Air Power: Key to Survival, I tried to warn the Congress and the American people that the Unification Act of 1947, as amended in 1949, was “neither fish, flesh, nor fowl and will never project a single strategy for victory”; that the Act attempted “to perpetuate by law the strategy and tactics of World War II”; and that “we are opening ourselves to the confusion that existed at Pearl Harbor, only this time on a global scale and prescribed by law.”

In other words, I warned that, because of a fallacious setup, there was the danger that our defense program would develop a disease that would threaten the very life of our nation. Now, eight years later, when the disease through Russia’s military technological lead — as demonstrated by their Sputniks — we are told how the malady was contracted. But, instead of the bold and skillful surgery required to remove the growth and restore the patient to health and vigor, we are offered a conglomeration of potions that will hopelessly snarl our national defense establishment. I agree entirely with the conclusions of AFA’s Airpower Policy Committee (see Air Force, May ’58) that the trouble with the President’s plan is that it does not go far enough. I, personally, am sure that the cure will be even worse that e disease. “Confusions by law” will be replaced with chaos by executive edict.

Under the beguiling claim that the new setup will provide greater integration of the services and unity of strategic effort, the plan actually fragments the Defense Department and multiplies the number of agencies, each of which will demand the major portion of our national effort. It chops the fish, chops the flesh, and chops the fowl into one unpalatable stew.

Here are a few concrete examples:

  • In his new plan, the President states, “We must free ourselves of emotional attachments to service systems of an era that is no more.” And since “the products of modern technology are not, in many cases, adaptable to traditional service patterns…we cannot allow different service viewpoints to determine the character of our defense.” This sounds inspiring. It appears as though, at long last we are taking a bold step forward, to radically revamp our archaic military setup. But in the next breath, alas, we take two steps backward, but stating that, “This recommendation most emphatically does not contemplate repeal of laws prescribing the composition of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Air Force…We should preserve the traditional form and pattern of the services…I have no intention or desire to merge or abolish the traditional services.” To me, these two statements are contradictory and irreconcilable.
  • Also, in his message the President infers that in Washington the inter-service rivalries are magnified by the press and congressional activities and ads: “Parenthetically, I may observe that these rivalries, so common in the national capital, are almost unknown in the field.” I don’t want to sound pedantic, but I am afraid that, in this case, strategy is being confused with tactics. In the field, a unified commander is given a definite objective, certain forces, and weapons with which to accomplish his task. It is only natural that everybody strives to do his best with the means available and there is, therefore, no cause for rivalry or bickering. All this is tactics. In Washington, on the other hand, the over-all national objective must be defined. The grand strategy must be devised, the military forces must be created and weapon systems must be developed to implement the basic strategy. All alternate ideas must be scrutinized and the final plan must be accepted b the Congress and the Administration. In either right or it is wrong — we cannot afford to be wrong. That is why, in Washington, everybody fights for his innermost convictions because as long as we have three separate services we will have three separate approaches to the problem of security.
  • The reorganization plan recommends that a new office of Director of Defense Research and Development be established which would, in effect, separate research and development from the military services. But, in order for the new weapons to fulfill their purposes, they must be the product of a definite strategic concept, backed by trained and dedicated men who posses the necessary military and technological skill to carry out the mission. They must be developed, under military supervision, for the military. Therefore, it simply doesn’t make sense to develop the new weapons in the abstract and feed them to the traditional services which, in turn, will supply them to unified commands for use in battle.
  • The Administration plan also recommends a rather novel personnel procedure for top-ranking officers. “Before officers are advanced beyond the two-star level, they must have demonstrated, among other qualities, the capacity for dealing objectively — without extreme service partisanship — in matters of broadest significance to our national security.” But since the President insists that “we should preserve the traditional form and pattern of the services,” we must assume that the officers are expected to develop the understanding loyalty and exprit de corps of their distinctive branches. Then, after thirty or forty years of dedicated service in their particular departments, shoulders, and presto! They become utterly detached from their deep-rooted convictions and philosophies and acquire “the capacity for dealing objectively without extreme service partisanship.” This is a good psychic trick if you can do it. I am afraid that, under this personnel procedure, it may not be the professional military experts who will wind up at the top but the politically minded officers who put personal ambition before the security of our nation.
  • And finally, the plan would authorize the Secretary of Defense to transfer officers of any rank among the services but — and this is the weirdest thing of all — “with the consent of the individual in each case.” Either the Secretary of Defense has the right to transfer the officers or he has not. And, parenthetically, it is obvious what will happen to the officer who doesn’t choose to be transferred. During the Russian Revolution, when I was in that country, the Kerensky regime gave the order that no officer’s command should be obeyed unless his subordinates consented. The Russian army promptly fell apart. Our military establishment may suffer the same fate and for the same reasons if this provision is adopted.

Civilian control of the military is being emphasized throughout the reorganization of our national defense. With this principle everyone agrees; but too many fail to understand that centralized authority to settle arbitrarily strategic disputes, even if vested in a civilian, is incompatible with such control. A dictator in mufti is no less a dictator than one in uniform. What we will have under the new setup is dictatorship by the party in power through complete subjugation of the military to its political whims.

The essence of civilian control is wide, popular participation in primary strategic decisions that affect our entire nation. It means the unabridged right of the people to know, through their Congress, the pertinent facts and problems and their unabridged obligation to take part in the decisive choice.

The trouble with our present military setup to date has been that, for the most part, the vital decisions were made in a spirit of compromise behind closed doors. As a result, the Congress and the people, in most cases, were kept in ignorance of the state of our national defense — until the Sputniks disclosed the shortcomings of our military effort. Under the new setup, the situation will be even worse. The civilian Secretary of Defense, who may not have any military training, may disregard the professional advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Congress could be reduced to a rubber stamp. How illogical it is to insist on maintaining the traditional services, providing insist on maintaining the traditional services, providing the environment for development of their distinctive military concepts and philosophies and then, when these officers have reached seniority, give the Secretary of Defense the power to bang their heads together and knock out of their brains their lifetime convictions!

The trouble with the proposed changes in our national defense is twofold: First, the plan has been masterminded by people who are emotionally unable to divest themselves of habits and traditions that have been deeply implanted in their minds from the early days of their respective services. Second, the pace of military technology has accelerated at such a breath taking rate that, unprepared by education, knowledge, and experience to meet this new environment, our top planners are confused and bewildered.

In this State of the Union message, the President stated that “the advent of revolutionary new devices…creates new difficulties reminiscent of those attending the advent of the airplane half a century ago. Some of the important new weapons which technology has produced do not fit into any existing service pattern. They cut across all services, involve all services, and transcend all services… in some instances they defy classification according to branch of service.”

I agree that the airplane did create new difficulties in the defense area half a century ago because it transformed the space above the surface of the Earth into the most efficient medium for carrying destruction to the enemy. The Air Force was created to exploit this third dimension. Since then, man has flown four times faster than a bullet, faster than a sixteen-inch shell, and faster than some ballistic missiles. With rocket propulsion, the weapons of the Air Force no longer the limit. There is no actual ceiling to the atmosphere; it does not end abruptly at some layer, beyond which outer space begins. One fades into the other gradually over hundreds begins. One fades into the other gradually over hundreds of miles of altitude. Airpower is spacepower. They are synonymous. The space above, therefore, is the natural domain of the Air Force, and since airpower is spacepower, supersonic vehicles, missiles, and satellites do not revolutionize warfare. They are simply more efficient weapons of air and spacepower. I am compelled to disagree that these new weapons transcend all services. They logically belong to the Air Force, which has for years prepared itself to wield these new instruments of war. The Air Force is not wedded to aircraft. It is a tri-dimensional military force that, because of its philosophy, has the organization and skill to keep abreast of space technology.

Shorn of their former strategic significance and trying to escape strategic unemployment, the elder services succeeded in selling the idea that they should leapfrog over the Air Force into space. The Vanguard project was assigned to the Navy to give it an opportunity to stake a claim in space with a token six-inch “moon.” The Army developed its Jupiter-C and wishes to launch the first manned satellites to assert itself as a spacepower.

Naturally, once given the necessary funds and teams of talented scientists and engineers, the services made a valuable contribution to the conquest of space. But by devoting their efforts to these projects, the elder services are actually deserting their primary missions on land and sea. Furthermore, such scattering of effort will lead to military absurdity. No matter how they are coordinated, it is ridiculous that all three services should try to become spacepowers. How illogical it will be to have the space around our planet infested with silver Sputniks of the Air Force, golden Sputniks of the Navy, and Khaki Sputniks of the Army, all trying to accomplish the selfsame mission in their own respective, inimitable ways.

In his reorganization plan, the President declares at the outset that “separate ground, sea, and air warfare is gone forever. If ever again we should be involved in war, we will fight it in all elements, with all services, as one single, concentrated effort.”

To begin with, separate ground, sea, and air warfare went out with World War I in 1918. It was World War II, which was won with combined teams of land, sea, and air forces, “fighting as one single, concentrated effort.” The next conflict, unquestionably, will not follow the pattern of the last war. It will be just as different from World War II as World War II was from World War I. The next conflict will be geared to one decisive force projected through air and space — which it must control — with all other services acting in supporting auxiliary roles.

In any future war, no military force will be able to survive on the surface of the Earth. The Army will have to go underground, the Air Force will have to remain airborne, and the Navy will have to go underwater. It would end down below, anyway, in case of hostilities, so why not plan it that way in advance to obtain the maximum strategic capability — particularly now, when the submarine has become the new capital ship of the modern Navy. The “traditional” forces will be able to return to the surface of the Earth and fulfill their missions only after the question of who controls the air and space above has been resolved. And that decision sill be gained above has been resolved. And that decision will be gained by the Air Force, in a well coordinated, perfectly timed offense with planes, missiles, and, if needed, satellites.

Whether a ballistic missile is viewed as a supersonic vehicle of the Air Force, or simply as long-range artillery, the fact remains that all these vehicles — ballistic and guided, manned or unmanned, maneuverable or orbital, whether for offense of defense — operate in the seflsame space. The air ocean and its endless outer space extension are one and indivisible and should be controlled by a single, homogeneous force.

The argument that we still must adhere to the balanced forces. Concept in order to fight so-called limited wars with conventional forces all over the world cannot hold under close examination. I am convinced that we are not going to fight such wars — that is, unless we take leave of our strategic senses. To understand my reasoning, I would like to define what constitutes total and limited war.

Total war is one fought primarily between the United States and the USSR, in which each side makes a supreme effort to destroy completely the other’s capacity to wage war and in which any and all nuclear weapons are utilized.

Limited war is one in which the forces of Communism and the United States may be involved but it originates in territory other than their own or their allies’. Neither side has any intention of letting the conflict spread to their homelands and each one believes that his objective can be accomplished by a limited investment of manpower and weapons.

I am convinced that:

1. We cannot win limited war fought with traditional forces regardless of whether conventional or nuclear weapons are used because of numerical lack of our manpower.

2. We can make limited war impossible if we make clear to the world that we possess a retaliatory force with the strategic scope and tactical flexibility to crush local aggressions anywhere on the globe.

Limited wars, whether fought with conventional or nuclear weapons, can never be decisive. They can be fought only with the consent of the belligerents and, therefore, are bound to end in a stalemate. At best they are a reconnaissance in force, useful to gain a better knowledge of the enemy’s capabilities and his political intentions, with the inevitable result of disclosing our own hand. Korea and Suez are proof that limited wars will always end precisely where they started, the status quo prevailing, unless they explode into a major atomic conflagration. The only difference between a limited war fought with conventional warheads and one fought with nuclear warheads is that, in the latter case, the investment of human life by both belligerents will be unacceptable, and the small nations we are trying to protect will be even more thoroughly decimated than Korea.

The very same technology that makes a total war between equally matched protagonists suicidal makes limited war idiotic. Russia has apparently sensed the new power relationship. That is why she stopped inciting Turkey and Syria against each other. She has also demobilized further her conventional forces, diverting that manpower toward increasing her potential for total war and forging the tools of economic competition.

We cannot preserve the traditional pattern of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and the Air Force and at the same time create a family of individual unified commands completely divorced from the parent services that are supposed to provide the wherewithal to make them combat worthy. Under the new setup, these unified commands will be an entirely different species. As a matter of fact, each one of them is to become a defense establishment in itself, demanding its own research and development for weapons with military characteristics peculiar to its own missions.

Take for example, the proposed Limited War Command. This, alone, would demand the biggest Army, the biggest Navy, the biggest Air Force, the biggest Marine Corps — the biggest of everything. It is bound to absorb such a huge portion of our national defense effort that it will forever preclude the creation and maintenance of adequate forces for air and space warfare.

In view of this new power relation, it simply doesn’t make any sense to “preserve the traditional form and pattern of the services.” No juggling around of these traditional services and their respective roles and missions will stave off confusion. The Unification Law must be repealed in its entirety. The principles upon which it was founded must be repudiated.

The inexorable progress of technology has already made our Navy about ninety percent air force. It wants to project its power through the air and space by planes, missiles, and satellites. The Army, likewise, demands its own independent aviation in order to project its power with planes, missiles and satellites.

Our nation must understand that there can be only one strategic plan. Its goal must be indisputable control of air and space. That is why it is unsound for three separate agencies to attempt to fight the same air and space war with the same weapon systems; namely, planes, missiles, supersonic-manned vehicles, or satellites. In order to implement the strategy of the future, we must integrate our three services into one single military service with one uniform, one promotion list, and a single staff. The new establishment must be, for all practical purposes, a congenial Department of Air and space, in which we have a Bureau of Naval Forces, a Bureau of Ground Forces, Marine Corps, and other surface warfare and logistic units.

The Chief of Staff is bound to be an outstanding military man, a removed expert in the field of strategy, with no allegiance to any political party. His powers will be similar to those of the Chief of Staff of the Army or the Chief of Naval Operations under the old setup when these departments were autonomous. The Secretary of Defense will be, essentially, an over-all administrator, the personification of civilian control over the military. The Chief of Staff will be accountable for his actions not only to the Commander in Chief and the Secretary of Defense but also to the Congress, since Congress, in the final analysis, is charged by the Constitution with “raising and maintaining armed forces.” Therefore, the outcries that such a direct line of authority when the chief of a single staff, in carrying out the will of the people, makes the necessary strategic decisions smacks of totalitarianism and creates a military Solomon, are utterly unwarranted. Such an organization in a totalitarian state, under the orders of a dictator, is one things; the same organization, under the system of checks and balance in our republic, is quite another.

The changes I have recommended cannot, and should not, be expected to come from the Pentagon. They are the duty of the lawmakers. Even though some of our top military leaders individually see their logic and timeliness, they cannot criticize our over-all policies without being censured.

There is only one source from which the necessary changes can come and that is the American people, bringing pressure on their representatives in Congress. But they cannot act unless they are brought to realize the dangers inherent in our present military system.

Pressure must be brought on the Congress because in this fight our representatives find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea. On one hand, if they take no action, they will antagonize their constituencies — the popular vote — which, through common sense, realize that competition and rivalry between the armed forces must be stopped, and our military effort unified. But if they do not make fundamental changes, they will antagonize the entrenched vested interests behind the orthodox military structure. These vested interests control political districts and, therefore, the organized vote. As a result, the Congress shies away from the issue, endeavoring to maintain status quo, and will do nothing until compelled by the swell of popular demand to take action.

We are still the greatest industrial nation on Earth. We still have the necessary creative brainpower pool to regain world leadership.

But we can never achieve our nation’s aims unless we streamline our defense organization to take full advantage of our unique talents and skills — the product of our free way of life. We must make fundamental changes, no matter how deeply they cut through sentiment or tradition. I respect and admire tradition. I value the importance of esprit de corps. But when these fine heritages interfere with human progress and threaten our very security, I feel that we must have the moral courage to relegate them to the nostalgic past and to make the necessary fundamental changes in our military setup. If we wait until such changes are forced upon us by the march of events, they may come too late. They must be made now, as a product of foresight and logic.

Only by organizing our entire defense effort into a single, homogeneous whole in compliance with the military axiom of unity of command and economy of force can we gain the air and space supremacy indispensable for the survival of freedom in a word where force is still the final arbiter among the nations. — End